They say that at the highest level of sport it’s an athlete’s mental strength that is the difference between winning and losing. All the top table tennis players can play the best shots, and are in great physical condition, but who can play their best when it matters? Who has what it takes mentally to perform at the highest level and win when the pressure is on?
I’m no expert on mental training in sport. I studied sports psychology as part of my Coaching and Sport Science degree but that’s about all the exposure I’ve had to it. If you are looking for an expert then Mark Simpson, a good friend of mine and creator of Brain-SPEC, is probably a better person to go. He has played table tennis at a semi-professional level in Europe and has just finished a two year Masters course in sports psychology.
However, I’ll use this post to outline a number of areas, within sports psychology, that I know of and that you may be able to implement into your training. I’m hoping to team up with Mark at some point in the future and write a lot more about mental training for table tennis.
Five sports psychology techniques
Sports psychologists use a number of different techniques when working with athletes. They could be trying to help an athlete overcome a particular problem or they may simply be aiming to help them improve their performance. There are five key techniques that you’ll come across again and again. In many ways they are quite simple to understand but putting them into practice can be tricky and requires practice.
1. Arousal regulation
When a sports psychologist talks about arousal they are basically referring to how pumped up you feel (physically and emotionally). Some players perform better when highly aroused (pumped up), while for others this can decrease their level of performance. Arousal is highly sport and individual dependent. Some sports you’ll want to be more pumped up for than others. Physical contact sports, for example, usually require a high level of arousal. You can use certain techniques to increase your arousal and get you ready to go out and perform.
Arousal regulation is also important for dealing with things like anxiety and nerves, a common problem for table tennis players. Sometimes you feel over-stressed, under pressure and a little scared. In these cases getting pumped up isn’t going to help, your heart is probably already racing. Instead you need some methods to decrease you heart rate and help you to relax. Methods such as progressive muscle relaxation and breathing exercises can help in these situations.
2. Goal setting
Most people have a fairly good understanding of goal setting and it’s use within sport and business. Sports psychologists will talk about SMART or SMARTER goals and importance of having different types of goals (short, medium and long term; process, performance and outcome goals). Short term goals can be used to help you to achieve long term goals and it kind of all goes hand in hand with planning your development and applying the principles of progression to your training plan.
Mark likes to talk a lot about imagery. I know that there is nothing funny or silly about it but for me it still has that kind of aura attacked to it. I’ve never really done any imagery so I can’t really imagine what it would be like to do it. I’m sure it works, research has proved that, I just don’t have any first-hand experience of it myself.
Imagery is all about creating or recreating an experience in your mind. It’s of way to practice, without even picking up a bat, and mentally rehearse you performance in a major tournament or match before you even arrive at the venue. In order for it to be successful it needs to be a life-like as possible and promote feelings of confidence in yourself. It can be especially effective when used the day before a big event to get yourself ready to perform.
4. Pre-performance routines
This is all about your preparation for a match or tournament. It can involve imagery and visualization but it also includes things like routines, rituals, superstitions, self-talk, and warming up. A pre-performance routine can help to get your mind and body ready to perform. It works by creating triggers in your brain that associate performance, and ideally a good performance, with actions you can easily performance prior to the event.
One great idea that Mark had for Sam, during the Expert in a Year challenge, was to create a video of him playing matches against people and playing really well. Mark said he should get into the habit of watching that video, accompanied by his favourite motivational song, before every practice session, and in time, every competitive match. Watching himself should help him to visualize a good performance and success and the routine of always watching the video should help get his body ready to perform once it has finished. I really like that idea and I’ve been working on creating that video for Sam so that he has it and can start practicing his routine a few weeks before he starts competing for real.
It can be a whole intervention on it’s own! Being able to use positive self-talk is extremely important as a serious athlete. You aren’t going to achieve all your goals and play your best if you keep telling yourself you’re rubbish. Self-talk is all about the thoughts and words we use when we talk to ourself.
Once of the best ways to use self-talk is to come up with a positive phrase or words that you repeat to yourself over and over again. It’s like you are constantly telling yourself that you are good, that you can do this, that you are going to succeed. It’s up to you which word or phrase you choose but it could be something a simple of “fight”. Each time you say “fight” you know it means, keep working, you can do it, don’t quit. You can say it out loud or in your head.
This is just a really brief overview of some of the popular sports psychology technique that you can use as a part of your mental training for table tennis. As I said at the start of the article, I’m no expert and I’m certainly not using many of these myself (although I should be). In particular, I really want to have a proper go at using imagery to improve my performance.
I wish you luck with your progress psychologically as a table tennis player. Mental training is important!